Video: Russians launch Gagarin into space

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updated 4/12/2012 3:21:01 PM ET 2012-04-12T19:21:01

Six astronauts on the International Space Station are celebrating two historic human spaceflight milestones from orbit today: the first human spaceflight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the risky first launch of NASA's space shuttle era.

Fifty-one years ago today, on April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. His Vostok 1 mission lasted 108 minutes, during which time Gagarin made a full orbit around Earth.

To honor Gagarin's pioneering flight, space enthusiasts are holding "Yuri's Night" parties around the world, and the space station's crew plans to join in the revelry from 240 miles (386 kilometers) above Earth.

Video: Cosmonaut Gagarin 'became a National Hero'

"The day that Yuri launched was really, really important," space station commander Dan Burbank of NASA told reporters via a video link Wednesday. "It basically set the foundation for a very wonderful and robust space program that we now enjoy cooperatively and internationally. We’re going to have a bit of a reduced schedule, enjoy a couple of meals together, which is something that often, with the busy tempo, we don’t get a chance to do. Most of us end up eating individually on the side as we go."

Video: A candid look at Yuri Gagarin

Sharing a meal together will allow the diverse crew — which includes two American astronauts, a Dutch astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts — to "think about the history of our space program up to this point, (and) talk about where we think we'll be going in the future," Burbank added.

But today also marks another important achievement in the history of human spaceflight : 31 years ago, on April 12, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off on the inaugural flight of NASA's shuttle program. [ NASA's Space Shuttle Program in Pictures ]

On that day, astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen launched into space aboard Columbia on the STS-1 mission, which was NASA's first manned mission since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

After 30 years of flying the space shuttle, NASA retired its orbiter fleet last year. The three remaining shuttles and a prototype test vehicle are now poised to be delivered to museums, where they will be put on public display.

"The shuttle did what it was best designed for," Burbank said. "It brought up some spectacular observatories in space, built this world-class laboratory that we have the privilege of living and working aboard for six months."

Before his current stint aboard the space station, Burbank flew two space shuttle missions, both on Atlantis.

"Having the space shuttles in museums, where people can see them, I think will be a good thing," he said. "I think that from a budgetary standpoint, it's going to help give NASA the wherewithal to design the next vehicles."

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On April 17, the space shuttle Discovery will depart NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and will travel piggyback on a modified 747 aircraft to the Washington Dulles International Airport, where it will be handed off to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"On the one hand, it's sad to see the shuttles retired, on the other, (we're) happy to have the opportunity to move onto new and hopefully better vehicles in the future," Burbank said.

You can follow Space.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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